To build more aerodynamic machines, researchers are drawing inspiration from an unlikely source: the ocean.
A team of evolutionary biologists and engineers at Harvard University, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of South Carolina, have shed light on a decades-old mystery about sharkskin and, in the process, demonstrated a new, bioinspired structure that could improve the aerodynamic performance of planes, wind turbines, drones and cars.
The research is published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
“The skin of sharks is covered by thousands and thousands of small scales, or denticles, which vary in shape and size around the body,” said George Lauder, the Henry Bryant Bigelow Professor of Ichthyology and Professor of Biology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and co-author of the research. “We know a lot about the structure of these denticles — which are very similar to human teeth — but the function has been debated.”
Most research has focused on the drag reducing properties of denticles but Lauder and his team wondered if there was more to the story.
“We asked, what if instead of mainly reducing drag, these particular shapes were actually better suited for increasing lift,” said Mehdi Saadat, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and co-first author of the study. Saadat holds a joint appointment in Mechanical Engineering at the University of South Carolina.
The researchers tested 20 different configurations of denticle sizes, rows and row positions on airfoils inside a water flow tank. They found that in addition to reducing drag, the denticle-shaped structures significantly increased lift, acting as high-powered, low-profile vortex generators.